ZaSu Pitts

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ZaSu Pitts
ZaSu Pitts PP234.jpg
Pitts in 1934
Born(1894-01-03)January 3, 1894
DiedJune 7, 1963(1963-06-07) (aged 69)
Resting place Holy Cross Cemetery
Years active1917–1963
  • (m. 1920;div. 1933)
  • John E. Woodall
    (m. 1933)
1926 Signature of Zasu Pitts, silent film actress (SAYRE 1715) (cropped).jpg

ZaSu Pitts ( /ˈszˈpɪts/ ; [1] January 3, 1894 [lower-alpha 1] – June 7, 1963) was an American actress whose career spanned nearly five decades, starring in many silent film dramas, including Erich von Stroheim's 1924 epic Greed , and comedies, before transitioning successfully to mostly comedy roles with the advent of sound films. She also appeared on numerous radio shows and, later, made her mark on television. She was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960 at 6554 Hollywood Blvd.


Early life

ZaSu Pitts was born in Parsons, Kansas, to Rulandus and Nelly (née Shay) Pitts; she was the third of four children. Her father, who had lost a leg while serving in the 76th New York Infantry in the Civil War, had settled the family in Kansas by the time ZaSu was born. [4]

The names of her father's sisters, Eliza and Susan, were purportedly the basis for the name "ZaSu", i.e., to satisfy competing family interests. It has been (incorrectly) spelled as Zazu Pitts in some film credits and news articles. Although the name is commonly mispronounced /ˈzæz/ ZAZ-oo or /ˈzs/ ZAY-soo, or /ˈzz/ ZAY-zoo, in her 1963 book Candy Hits (pg. 15), published the year of her death, the actress gave the correct pronunciation as "Say Zoo" /ˈsz/ , recounting that Mary Pickford had predicted "many will mispronounce it", and adding, "How right she was."

However, when introducing herself on the September 4, 1952 episode of I've Got a Secret , she herself pronounced it as Zay-zoo. [5] Her comedy series partner Thelma Todd also clearly addresses her as Zay-zoo in the hospital room scene of Alum and Eve (1932).

In 1903, when Pitts was nine years old, her family moved to Santa Cruz, California, to seek a warmer climate and better job opportunities. Her childhood home at 208 Lincoln Street still stands. She attended Santa Cruz High School, where she participated in school theatricals. [6]


Pitts, c. 1920 Zasu Pitts Who's Who on the Screen.jpg
Pitts, c. 1920

Pitts made her stage debut in 1914–15 doing school and local community theater in Santa Cruz. Going to Los Angeles in 1916, at the age of 22, she spent many months seeking work as a film extra. Finally, she was discovered for substantive roles in films by screenwriter Frances Marion, who cast Pitts as an orphaned slavey (child of work) in the silent film A Little Princess (1917), starring Pickford.

Pitts's popularity grew following a series of Universal one-reeler comedies, and earned her first feature-length lead in King Vidor's Better Times (1919). The following year she married her first husband, Tom Gallery, with whom she was paired in several films, including Heart of Twenty (1920), Bright Eyes, Patsy (both 1921) and A Daughter of Luxury (1922).

David Butler and Pitts look lovingly at each other while Jack McDonald glares in a scene still for the 1919 silent drama Better Times Better Times 1919.jpg
David Butler and Pitts look lovingly at each other while Jack McDonald glares in a scene still for the 1919 silent drama Better Times

Pitts enjoyed her greatest fame in the early 1930s, often starring in B movies and comedy short films, teamed with Thelma Todd. [lower-alpha 2] She played secondary parts in many films. Her stock persona (a fretful, flustered, worried spinster) made her instantly recognizable and was often imitated in cartoons and other films. She starred in a number of Hal Roach short films and features, often in partnership with Thelma Todd as two trouble-prone working girls. At Universal she co-starred in a series of feature-length comedies with Slim Summerville. Switching between comedy short films and features, by the advent of sound, she became a specialist in comedy roles.

Dramatic potential

ZaSu Pitts had hidden talents as a dramatic actress. She was given the greatest tragic role of her career in Erich von Stroheim's 7+12-hour epic Greed (1924). The surprise casting initially shocked Hollywood, but showed that Pitts could draw tears with her doleful demeanor, as well as laughs. Having been extensively edited prior to release — the final theatrical cut ran just over two hours — the movie failed initially at the box office, but has since been restored to over four hours and is considered one of the greatest films ever made. [8] [9] Based on her performance, von Stroheim labeled ZaSu Pitts "the greatest dramatic actress." He also featured her in his films The Honeymoon (1928), The Wedding March (1928), and Walking Down Broadway. Pitts's performance in Walking Down Broadway was dramatic, with her character showing a repressed romantic interest in her girlfriend; the studio reshot these scenes with Pitts, now playing the girl's companion for laughs, and von Stroheim's directorial credit was removed from the film. [10] The film was finally released in 1933, much changed, as Hello, Sister! .

ZaSu Pitts was so recognizable in comedies that the public didn't take her dramatic efforts seriously. In the classic war drama All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), Pitts was cast as the distraught mother of young soldier Lew Ayres, but at preview screenings her intense performance drew unintentional laughs. Her scenes were refilmed with Beryl Mercer. In 1936 RKO needed a replacement actress for its Hildegarde Withers series of murder mysteries; Edna May Oliver had left the studio and Helen Broderick succeeded Oliver in the role. Pitts was chosen to succeed Broderick. In theory, it was a good idea: Pitts seemed to fit the role of a prim, spinster schoolmistress. However, mystery fans couldn't accept the fluttery Pitts as a brainy sleuth who matched wits with the police, and after her two Withers films the series was abandoned. [11]

Radio and stage

Beginning in the 1930s, Pitts found work in radio. She appeared several times in the earliest Fibber McGee and Molly shows, playing a dizzy dame constantly looking for a husband. When Marian Jordan temporarily withdrew from Fibber McGee and Molly due to illness, Pitts made guest appearances opposite Jim Jordan as Fibber. Pitts also guested on variety shows, trading banter with Bing Crosby, Al Jolson, W.C. Fields, and Rudy Vallee, among others. She played Miss Mamie Wayne in the soap opera Big Sister . [2] , and was heard as Miss Pitts on The New Lum and Abner Show . [12]

In 1944, Pitts tackled Broadway, making her debut in the mystery Ramshackle Inn . The play, written expressly for her, did well, and she took the show on the road in later years. She was also a familiar attraction in summer-stock theaters, playing annually in the Norma Mitchell play Post Road.

Postwar movies and television

Postwar films continued to give her the chance to play comic snoops and flighty relatives in such fare as Life with Father (1947), but in the 1950s, she started focusing on television. This culminated in her best-known series role, playing second banana to Gale Storm in ABC's The Gale Storm Show (1956) (also known as Oh, Susanna), in the role of Elvira Nugent ("Nugie"), the shipboard beautician. In 1961, Pitts was cast opposite Earle Hodgins in the episode "Lonesome's Gal" of the ABC sitcom Guestward, Ho! , set on a dude ranch in New Mexico. In 1962, she appeared in an episode of CBS's Perry Mason , "The Case of the Absent Artist". Her final role was as Gertie, the switchboard operator in the Stanley Kramer comedy epic It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963).

Personal life

Pitts and husband John Woodall circa 1935 ZaSu Pitts and John Woodall.jpg
Pitts and husband John Woodall circa 1935

Pitts was married to actor Thomas Sarsfield Gallery from 1920 until their 1933 divorce. Gallery became a Los Angeles boxing promoter and later a TV executive. The couple had two children:

In 1933, Pitts married John Edward "Eddie" Woodall, with whom she remained until her death. [15] [16]

Declining health dominated Pitts's later years, particularly after she was diagnosed with cancer in the mid-1950s. She continued to work, appearing on TV and making brief appearances in the films The Thrill of It All and It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World . She died in Hollywood on June 7, 1963, aged 69, and was interred at Holy Cross Cemetery, Culver City. [2] Pitts wrote a book of candy recipes, Candy Hits, which was published posthumously in 1963. [17]


Trailer for Ruggles of Red Gap (1935) ZaSu Pitts in Ruggles of Red Gap trailer.jpg
Trailer for Ruggles of Red Gap (1935)

ZaSu Pitts was inducted to the Hollywood Walk of Fame on February 8, 1960, for her contribution to motion pictures. [18] Her star is on the south side of the 6500 block of Hollywood Boulevard. [19]

In 1994, she was honored with her image on a United States postage stamp along with fellow actors Rudolph Valentino, Clara Bow and Charlie Chaplin as part of The Silent Screen Stars stamp set, designed by caricaturist Al Hirschfeld. [6] [20] Her birthplace of Parsons, Kansas, has a star tile at the entrance to the Parsons Theatre to commemorate her. [21]

In the film Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941), W.C. Fields asks his niece, played by Gloria Jean, "Don't you want to go to school? You want to grow up and be dumb like ZaSu Pitts?" Gloria Jean replied "She only acts like that in pictures. I like her." [22]

Actress Mae Questel, who performed character voices in Max Fleischer's Popeye and Betty Boop cartoons, reportedly based the fluttering utterances of Olive Oyl on Pitts. [23]


1917 Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm Undetermined RoleUncredited
'49–'17 Party GuestUncredited
The Little Princess Becky
1918 A Modern Musketeer A Kansas BelleUncredited
How Could You, Jean? Oscar's SweetheartLost film
The Talk of the Town Lost film
The Greatest Thing in Life Lost film
Scenes deleted
1919 A Lady's Name EmilyIncomplete
Four of five reels survive at the Museum of Modern Art
As the Sun Went Down Sal SueLost film
Men, Women, and Money Katie JonesLost film
Better Times Nancy ScroggsA copy is held at the EYE Film Institute Netherlands
The Other Half Jennie Jones, The Jazz Kid
Poor Relations Daisy PerkinsLost film
1920Bright SkiesSally
Heart of TwentyKatie Abbott
Seeing It ThroughBetty Lawrence
1921 Patsy Patsy
1922 Is Matrimony a Failure? Mrs. WilburLost film
For the Defense Jennie DunnA copy is held at the EYE Film Institute Netherlands
Youth to Youth EmilyLost film
A Daughter of Luxury Mary CosgroveLost film
1923 Mary of the Movies HerselfAn incomplete copy is held at the Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision
Cameo role
The Girl Who Came Back Anastasia MuldoonLost film
Souls for Sale HerselfCameo role
Three Wise Fools MickeyA copy is held at the Cinematheque Royale de Belgique
Hollywood HerselfLost film
Cameo role
Poor Men's Wives Apple AnnieLost film
Tea: With a Kick!'Brainy' Jones
West of the Water Tower Dessie ArnhaltLost film
1924 Daughters of Today Lorena
The Goldfish Amelia PugsleyAn incomplete copy is held at the Library of Congress
Triumph A Factory GirlCopies are held at the George Eastman Museum and the Library of Congress
Changing Husbands DeliaA copy is held at the Library of Congress
The Legend of Hollywood Mary Brown
Wine of Youth LucyA copy is held at the George Eastman Museum
Scenes deleted
The Fast Set MonaLost film
Secrets of the Night Celia Stebbins
Greed TrinaFilm is extant, but original 42 reel version is lost
Sunlight of Paris
1925 The Great Divide Polly JordanA copy is held at the Cinemateket-Svenska Filminstitutet
The Re-Creation of Brian Kent JudyA copy is held at the Library of Congress
Old Shoes
Pretty Ladies Maggie KeenanFilm is extant, but technicolor sequence is lost
A Woman's Faith Blanche Odile
The Business of Love Miss Wright
Thunder Mountain Mandy CoulterLost film
Lazybones Ruth Fanning
Wages for Wives Luella LoganLost film
The Great Love NancyLost film
1926 Mannequin Annie Pogani
What Happened to Jones Hilda
Monte Carlo Hope DurantA copy is held at the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film library
Early to Wed Mrs. DuganLost film
Sunny Side Up Evelyn
Risky Business Agnes Wheaton
Her Big Night Gladys SmithA copy is held at the UCLA Film and Television Archive
1927 Casey at the Bat Camille GibsonA copy is held at the Library of Congress
1928 Wife Savers GermaineLost film
13 Washington Square MathildeCopies are held at the UCLA Film and Television Archive and the Library of Congress
Buck Privates HuldaA copy is held at the George Eastman Museum
The Wedding March Cecelia Schweisser
1928 Sins of the Fathers Mother SpenglerPart-talkie
1929 The Dummy Rose Gleason
The Squall Lena
Twin Beds Tillie
The Argyle Case Mrs. WyattLost film, only the sounds to reels 3, 5, 7, and 9 survive, and possibly the soundtrack at the UCLA Film and Television Archive
Her Private Life Timmins
Oh, Yeah! The Elk
Paris HarrietLost film, only the soundtrack survives
The Locked Door Telephone Girl
This Thing Called Love Clara BertrandLost film, only the technicolor sequence survives
1930 No, No, Nanette Pauline HastingsAn incomplete copy is held at the BFI National Archive
Honey Mayme
All Quiet on the Western Front Frau BäumerSilent version trailer only; scenes deleted
The Devil's Holiday Ethel
The Little Accident Monica
The Squealer Bella
Monte Carlo Bertha
War Nurse Cushie
The Lottery Bride Hilda
River's End Louise
Sin Takes a Holiday Annie
The Honeymoon CaeciliaLost film; released only in Europe
Free Love Ada
Passion Flower Mrs. Harney
1931 Finn and Hattie Mrs. Haddock
Bad Sister Minnie
Beyond Victory Mademoiselle Fritzi
Seed Jennie
A Woman of Experience Katie
Their Mad Moment Miss Dibbs
The Big Gamble Nora Dugan
Penrod and Sam Mrs. BassettAlternative title: The Adventures of Penrod and Sam
The Guardsman Liesl, the Maid
The Secret Witness Bella
On the Loose ZasuShort film
1932 The Unexpected Father Polly Perkins
Broken Lullaby Anna, Holderlin's Maid
Steady Company Dot
Shopworn Aunt Dot
Destry Rides Again Temperance WorkerAlternative title: Justice Rides Again
The Trial of Vivienne Ware Gladys Fairweather
Strangers of the Evening Sybil Smith
Westward Passage Mrs. Truesdale
Is My Face Red? Morning Gazette Telephone Operator
Make Me a Star Mrs. Scudder
Roar of the Dragon Gabby Woman
The Vanishing Frontier Aunt Sylvia
Blondie of the Follies Gertie
Back Street Mrs. Dole
The Crooked Circle Nora Rafferty
Once in a Lifetime Miss Leyton
Madison Square Garden Florrie
They Just Had to Get Married Molly Hull
1933 Out All Night Bunny
Hello, Sister! Millie
Professional Sweetheart Elmerada de Leon
Her First Mate Mary Horner
Love, Honor, and Oh Baby! Connie Clark
Aggie Appleby, Maker of Men Sybby 'Sib'
Meet the Baron ZaSu
Mr. Skitch Maddie Skitch
1934 The Meanest Gal in Town Tillie Prescott
Two Alone Esthey Roberts
Three on a Honeymoon Alice Mudge
Sing and Like It Annie Snodgrass
Love Birds Araminta Tootle
Private Scandal Miss Coates
Dames Matilda Ounce Hemingway
Their Big Moment Tillie Whim
Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch Miss Hazy
The Gay Bride Mirabelle
1935 Ruggles of Red Gap Prunella Judson
Spring Tonic Maggie Conklin
Going Highbrow Mrs. Cora Upshaw
She Gets Her Man Esmeralda
Hot Tip Belle McGill
The Affair of Susan Susan ToddAlternative title: Alone Together
1936 Thirteen Hours by Air Miss Harkins
Mad Holiday Mrs. Kinney
The Plot Thickens Hildegarde Withers
Sing Me a Love Song Gwen Logan
1937 Wanted! Winnie Oatfield
Merry Comes to Town Winnie Oatfield
Forty Naughty Girls Hildegarde Withers
52nd Street Letitia Rondell
1939 The Lady's from Kentucky Dulcey Lee
Naughty but Nice Aunt Penelope Hardwick
Mickey the Kid Lilly Handy
Nurse Edith Cavell Mme. Moulin
Eternally Yours Mrs. Cary Bingham
1940 It All Came True Miss Flint
No, No, Nanette Pauline Hastings
1941 Broadway Limited Myra
Niagara Falls Emmy Sawyer
Weekend for Three Anna
Miss Polly Miss Pandora Polly
The Mexican Spitfire's Baby Miss Emily Pepper
Uncle Joe Julia Jordan - the Widow
1942 Mexican Spitfire at Sea Miss Pepper
The Bashful Bachelor Geraldine
So's Your Aunt Emma Aunt Emma BatesAlternative title: Meet the Mob
Tish Aggie Pilkington
1943 Let's Face It! Cornelia Figeson
1946 Breakfast in Hollywood Elvira Spriggens
1947 Life with Father Cousin Cora Cartwright
1950 Francis Nurse Valerie Humpert
1952 Denver and Rio Grande Jane Dwyer
1954 Francis Joins the WACS Lt. Valerie Humpert
1957 This Could Be the Night Mrs. Katie Shea - Landlady
1961 The Teenage Millionaire Aunt Theodora
1963 The Thrill of It All OliviaReleased posthumously; filmed in 1962
It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World Gertie - Switchboard OperatorReleased posthumously; filmed in 1962; (final film role)

Television credits

1949 Lum and Abner Miss PittsEpisode: "Pilot"
1954 The Best of Broadway Miss PreenEpisode: "The Man Who Came to Dinner"
1955 Screen Directors Playhouse SelmaEpisode: "The Silent Partner"
1956 The 20th Century Fox Hour Miss AppletonEpisode: "Mr. Belvedere"
1956–1960 The Gale Storm Show Elvira Nugent91 episodes
1957 Private Secretary Aunt MarthaEpisode: "Not Quite Paradise"
1960 The Dennis O'Keefe Show Loretta KimballEpisode: "Dimples"
1961 Guestward, Ho! Episode: "Lonesome's Gal"
1962 Perry Mason Daphne WhilomEpisode: "The Case of the Absent Artist"
1963 Burke's Law Mrs. BowieEpisode: "Who Killed Holly Howard?" Posthumous Air Date

See also


  1. Pitts's year of birth is difficult to pinpoint. Kansas did not keep birth records prior to 1911. Many sources, including Halliwell's Filmgoer's Companion, give 1898 as the year; her obituary in the New York Times gives 1900, which also appears on her headstone; Pitts biographer Stumpf gives 1894 [2] and Notable American Women points out that the 1900 US Census gives her age as six years old. [3]
  2. Todd and she are listed by Variety as the top two actors in number of film roles in the early 1930s (pre-1933). [7]

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  1. ZaSu Pitts (1963). Candy Hits by ZaSu Pitts. Duell, Sloan and Pearce. p. 15.
  2. 1 2 3 Charles Stumpf (2010). ZaSu Pitts: The Life and Career. McFarland. pp. 3, 82, 100, 103–104. ISBN   978-0-7864-6023-6.
  3. Harold J. Salemson (1980). "ZaSu Pitts". In Barbara Sicherman; Carol Hurd Green (eds.). Notable American Women: The Modern Period. A Biographical Dictionary . Harvard University Press. pp.  547–548. ISBN   978-0-674-62733-8.
  4. Phil Reader. Mike Brown (ed.). "Rulandus Pitts". 76th New York State Volunteers "The Cortland Regiment". Retrieved June 7, 2010.
  5. "I've Got a Secret, September 4, 1952". YouTube . Archived from the original on December 12, 2021.
  6. 1 2 Barbara Giffen (1984). "ZaSu Pitts: Actress 1898–1963". Santa Cruz Public Library. Retrieved June 7, 2010.
  7. "Who's Grabbin' The Jobs: Hollywood Has Its Chosen Few". Variety. 110 (10): 3. May 16, 1933. Retrieved March 7, 2015.
  8. Koszarski, Richard (1983). Von: The Life and Films of Erich Von Stroheim. Hal Leonard Corporation. p. 168. ISBN   0879109548.
  9. Klepper, Robert K. (2005). Silent Films, 1877-1996: A Critical Guide to 646 Movies. McFarland. p. 286. ISBN   0786421649.
  10. Don Miller, B Movies, Curtis Books, New York, 1973.
  11. Stuart Palmer (2013). Hildegarde Withers in The Riddle of the Blueblood Murders. Wildside Press LLC. p. 4. ISBN   978-1-4344-4637-4.
  12. Terrace, Vincent (1999). Radio Programs, 1924-1984: A Catalog of More Than 1800 Shows. McFarland & Company, Inc. p. 255. ISBN   978-0-7864-4513-4.
  13. Marston 2010, p. 121.
  14. Donnelley 2003, p. 390.
  15. United Press (February 12, 1934). "Zasu Pitts Marries Tennis Instructor". The Pittsburgh Press. p. 5. Retrieved August 6, 2023. "The secret marriage of Zasu Pitts, screen comedienne, and Edward Woodall, tennis instructor, was reported today by friends here."
  16. "Comedienne ZaSu Pitts Dies at 63 of Cancer: ZASU PITTS". Los Angeles Times. June 8, 1963. p. 1. ProQuest   168323319. Miss Pitts, wife of John E. Woodall, Los Angeles businessman and former tennis champion, entered the hospital Thursday. [...] Besides her husband, she leaves a daughter, Mrs. Ann Reynolds, and a son, Donald Gallery.
  17. Lesem, Jeanne (December 14, 1963). "Books Are Bound for Cook's Shelf". Courier-Post . p. 6. ProQuest   1916485798. If you thought every possible angle had been covered in the cookbook field, look again. [...] 'Candy Hits' by Zasu Pitts (Duell, Sloan and Pearce) is a nostalgic collection of candy recipes sure to whet the sweet tooth of all who remember how delicious homemade goodies used to taste before mass production prevailed.
  18. "ZaSu Pitts". Hollywood Walk of Fame. Hollywood Chamber of Commerce. Retrieved September 28, 2014.
  19. Christopher Smith (March 3, 2010). "ZaSu Pitts". Hollywood Star Walk. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved March 7, 2015.
  20. "29-cent Zasu Pitts single". Arago—People, Postage & the Post: Silent Screen Stars. Smithsonian, National Postal Museum. Retrieved March 7, 2015.
  21. "ZaSu Pitts". Kansapedia. Kansas Historical Society. April 2013. Retrieved March 7, 2015.
  22. "ZaSu PItts: The Life and Career (2010) – By James L. Neibaur". Rogue Cinema. Retrieved January 27, 2018.
  23. Daniel Eagan (2010). America's Film Legacy: The Authoritative Guide to the Landmark Movies in the National Film Registry. A&C Black. p. 254. ISBN   978-0-8264-2977-3.


  1. Donnelley, Paul (2003). Fade To Black: A Book Of Movie Obituaries. Omnibus. ISBN   978-1844494309.
  2. Marston, Jack (2010). "Siren Song: The Tragedy of Barbara La Marr". In Tibbetts, John C; Welsh, James M (eds.). American Classic Screen Profiles. Scarecrow. ISBN   978-0810876767.